Solving the mystery of the Armidale Club fire

Author: Peter Harden

Happier times at the Armidale Club before the controversial fire on September 16th, 2016 Photo Credit: James Brooks

The Armidale Club at 91 Beardy St, Armidale NSW was destroyed by a deliberate fire early on the morning of September 16th, 2016. Coroner Michael Holmes determined the fire was caused by an unknown person or persons who poured petrol in the building and ignited it.

The Police investigation into the fire is expected to continue early in 2019 as the NSW Police review new evidence which has come to their attention.

Armidale Club owner Kathryn Richards (left) with a staff member having fun behind the bar in 2016 before a unsolved act of arson destroyed the Armidale club early in the morning on Sept 16th, 2016 Photo Credit: James Brooks

Since the fire, Kathryn Richards, the Armidale Club owner who leased the property from owner Gary Burgess, has been involved in a two year long battle to get the police and authorities to properly investigate the fire, and determine who was responsible. To date nobody has been charged.

Our 4 week long investigation into the circumstances surrounding the fire has turned into a forensic examination of the forced relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale NSW and whether it was linked to the Armidale Club arson on the 16th September 2016.

Saddle up, we are going deep.


Barnaby Joyce decides to move the APVMA to Armidale

On 25 November 2016, Barnaby Joyce, then Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources formally announced the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Medical Veterinary Authority (APVMA) to Armidale. This was part of a commitment he made on 15 May 2015, to decentralise certain Commonwealth services to the regions.

An earlier announcement about Barnaby’s plan to relocate the APVMA came on the 9th June, 2016 before the Federal election, which a Malcolm Turnbull led Government won by a slim majority of just one seat. (Something that Barnaby Joyce has reminded Malcolm Turnbull of on many occasions).

However the first public announcement about this plan took place much earlier in May 2015 when Barnaby Joyce announced he had already spoken with the Armidale Mayor about the idea.

“I am working with [Armidale Dumaresq] Mayor Laurie Bishop and … State Member Adam Marshall as well as the University of New England and they have all been steadfast in their support for this proposal,” Mr Joyce said.


What happened to co-locating with the University of New England?

All the early announcements that Barnaby Joyce made about the APVMA relocation were based on the premise the APVMA would be co-located with the University of New England to create a ‘centre of agricultural excellence’.

“Mr Joyce says Armidale is the preferred location for the authority and UNE vice-chancellor Annabelle Duncan has accommodated by hinting the authority could find a home on campus. The move would establish Armidale as a centre for agricultural excellence and contribute more than $16 million a year to the local economy, Mr Joyce said yesterday. I’m confident the city will give [the proposal] the community support needed to convince my colleagues in Canberra to give it the final tick of approval,” Mr Joyce said.

However it’s never been explained to the Australian public why the option to base the APVMA at the University of New England was taken off the table. If anyone knows please let us know.

Armidale Regional council talking up the APVMA co-location with UNE in June 2016

Plan B

In August 2016 after co-location with the University of New England was mysteriously taken off the table, Barnaby Joyce then sent his departmental staff on an urgent hunt for commercial property they could lease in the centre of Armidale, before the $272,000 Ernst & Young cost benefit analysis report had been completed.

Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was less than impressed.

“Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce had left “the reservation” by announcing the relocation would go ahead despite the cost-benefit analysis being incomplete.”

This is where the story gets really interesting. Maybe grab a coffee.

Barnaby Joyce speaking on ABC Insiders about the forced APVMA relocation on September 11th, 2016, just 6 days before the Armidale Club fire

Testing the Armidale property market

The first ‘tender’ process was carried out by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources after they engaged JLL Corporate Solutions on 30th August 2016 to ‘test the Armidale property market’. Barnaby Joyce still was the Minister at the time.

Our investigation has discovered evidence that several proposals to provide a long term accommodation option for the APVMA relocation relied on using the property at 91 Beardy St, Armidale. These responses were received by the the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources during September 2016, well before the official announcement to relocate the APVMA to Armidale was made in November 2016.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources tender to search for suitable property in Armidale was published on the austender website on September 15th, 2016.

What the Department knew

Departmental staff told the Senate inquiry they advertised the tender on austender on September 15th, 2016 and in various newspapers and via media releases, however no copies of the later were tabled at the Senate inquiry.

The Senate inquiry hearing on the 23rd of October 2018 was eventually provided with a screenshot of the JLL Corporate Solutions website showing they had also published this request for information on their website in September 2016 (no specific day given), calling for interested parties to respond. Respondents were given one month to apply by Oct 7th, 2016.

NOTE: Departmental officials supplied the Senate inquiry with a cropped version of the screenshot, so the actual date it was published is still not known. We have always assumed it was September 7th, 2016 given that most other Federal Australian Government tenders have a minimum response time frame of one month after they are published.

Screenshot of the JLL ‘Request for Information’ published on their website in September 2016.
Extract from Senate Estimates Hansard where Scott Brown from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources stated they advertised the initial tender via media releases in Newspapers as well as on austender in September 2016.
Hunt for new Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority home begins

Kathryn Richards comments,

“Given the urgency to find a property solution within such a short time frame of just one month, it’s highly plausible that JLL Corporate Solutions started their process almost immediately after being engaged by the department on August 30th, 2016.”

Our investigation has found that previous media reports assumed the austender date of September 15th, 2016 was synchronised with any other possible actions the department took to advertise the tender, and this date somehow marked the commencement of their efforts.

However in reality, a few simple phone calls and emails to local real estate agents in Armidale would have sufficed to get the process started, and they could have started searching for suitable properties anytime after they were engaged on the 30th August, 2016.

Kathryn Richards explains,

“It wouldn’t have taken more than a few days to get the tender info together, after all it was just ‘a request for information’, not really a formal tender. JLL could have simply contacted Armidale real estate agents by phone and then emailed the tender document to them directly”.

“This is a critical point in the investigation as it demonstrates that actions to secure a property for the APVMA relocation could have commenced weeks before the Armidale Club fire on September 16th, 2016. It also challenges the notion that the Armidale Club fire had nothing to do with the APVMA relocation, something which the NSW Police may finally take note of.”

After searching through old copies of the Armidale Express on microfilm we discovered the JLL tender was first published locally in the Armidale Express newspaper on Friday the 23rd September, 2016.

We also spoke with Matthew Cullen from JLL who was listed as a contact on the original tender and asked him for a written reply to these two questions we supplied.

1: Where was the attached advertisement first published? i.e Which newspapers
2: What date was it first published?

We received a reply on Jan 2nd, 2019 stating that JLL have declined to provide this information to the media at this stage, and have directed us to make enquiries with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.


Armidale Real Estate Agents contacted

Previous media articles revealed that local real estate agents were contacted during this initial tender process. However it still unclear if any of the Armidale real estate agents were contacted before the tender was officially advertised via austender on September 15th, 2016.

One well known Armidale real estate agent John Sewell, (a long term local and avid supporter of Barnaby Joyce), was one of many real estate agents in Armidale who were excited about the pending relocation of the APVMA. Mr Sewell in particular had been very vocal in his support for the move since it was first discussed back in 2015.

Unfortunately Mr Sewell, along with other Armidale real estate agents have not been available to speak with us this week to shed more light of this part of the tender process.

However on 14th February 2018, Mr Sewell did make the following statement to the Canbebrra Times.

The building was likely to be $3 million to $4 million in value and a “mini-stimulus package” for the town. Everyone had their fair crack to do it. It was a very transparent process.”

He described the move as “probably one of the best things to happen to Armidale in the last generation” and backed the Nationals’ move to decentralise the Australian Public Service.

“The people who work at the APVMA will be the right people to live in Armidale,” he said.

However the initial tender process was anything but transparent and despite months of Senate estimates hearings and multiple FOI requests the list of the interested parties who first responded to the initial tender has been refused.

A freedom of information (FOI) request on the 25th of May, 2018 that Kathryn Richards submitted to the department requesting the release of documents containing the list of the initial tender respondents was refused on public immunity grounds. (see ‘No Freedom of Information’ below)

We believe gaining access to the list of initial tender respondents is absolutely vital to this investigation. Hopefully the NSW Police will now issue a subpoena to request it from the Department so they can finally determine if the Armidale Club fire was in fact linked to the APVMA relocation and the associated property tender.

Image Source: Public Facebook profile of Armidale Real Estate agent John Sewell from Oct 31st, 2017

The Senate inquiry

The Armidale Club arson mystery also gained the attention of Labor senators who questioned federal government officials about their initial search for a suitable property in Armidale for the APVMA relocation.

On 16 October 2018, the Senate moved that the following matters be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for inquiry to report back to the Senate by 1 February 2019.


Departmental staff grilled at Senate inquiry

During the Senate inquiry hearings departmental staff were grilled by the Senate committee members about the timeline of events around the first tender process initiated by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

After countless back and forth questions departmental staff confirmed they had in fact engaged JLL Corporate Solutions on 30th August, 2016 to “test the Armidale property market”.

The Hansard makes for extremely interesting reading and after hours of questions and vague answers a slightly clearer, (yet still ambiguous) picture emerges.

Source: Page 77: Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee_2018_10_23_6695.pdf

This is where things get really interesting.

As the Senate Committee members continue to ask departmental staff further questions trying to identify how many initial responses were received, when they were received, and who these responses were from.

During this part of the formalities one of the department staff members Mr Sanson-Fisher had to correct one of his answers, but by doing so, gave away that Gary Burgess and Bayfoyle Pty Ltd were in fact connected to one of the initial tender responses.

Source: Page 87: Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee_2018_10_23_6695.pdf
Source: Page 88: Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee_2018_10_23_6695.pdf

When asked about this part of the Senate inquiry Kathryn Richards says an obvious question was never asked.

“The obvious question the Senate Committee failed to ask is how could any of the initial responses to the September 2016 tender process nominate 91 Beardy St as a viable option without first discussing it with the property owner Gary Burgess?”


Getting to the truth

When pressed further departmental staff confirmed that 3 of the 10 initial responses had in fact listed the Armidale Club property at 91 Beardy St, as an option.

Senator Malarndirri McCarthy seeks to clarify this new information.

Source: Page 88: Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee_2018_10_23_6695.pdf

However the problem was at the time of the initial tender process the property at 91 Beardy St, Armidale was being leased to the Armidale Club who were operating their business successfully with plans to expand.

Kathryn Richards goes on to say.

“The property owner Gary Burgess never spoke with me or any of my staff about any intentions to sell or lease the property to any other party before the fire. He also knew of our recent success in being granted a full hotel license as well as our plans to expand the club and build an outdoor beer garden.”


Conflicting answers

When asked by the Senate Committee what date the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources started receiving responses to the initial tender Ms Julie Gaglia took the question no notice to clarify the date after initially saying she thought tenders were mostly in by around September 7th.

The departmental response to this question on notice from Ms Gaglia came two months later on December 4th, well after the department had ample time to check the accuracy of their answer. However things get interesting when you compare their answer to the official submission they made to the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee much earlier on 30th March, 2017. This earlier statement by the department notes that JLL Corporate Solutions were actually engaged to ‘test the Armidale property market’ on August 30th, 2016.

This summary below submitted at Senate estimates explains the timeline of the involvement of JLL in the initial tender process.

Source: https://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=faebc4cd-1f7f-4fe0-900a-8b23d89386f5&subId=509091

Was this a simple mistake, typical departmental obscurity or something worse?

Some commentators on social media have suggested that this omission represents an attempt by departmental staff to mislead the Senate inquiry into believing the initial tender process commenced on September 15th, 2016.

This scenario implies that interested parties were only contacted and responses received after the Armidale Club Fire on Sept 16th, 2016, therefore making any link between the fire and the initial APVMA relocation tender process highly unlikely.

However in reality the time frame was extremely tight, with just one month given to find a suitable property in Armidale that the APVMA could end up leasing. If JLL had waited until after the 15th of September before contacting anyone that would have only given them 3 just weeks.

Another real possibility that authorities should consider is they might have already had something lined up, and didn’t really want a big list of candidates to deal with, but had to complete the tender process for the sake of transparency.


The flawed Police investigation

The first person the police spoke with on the morning of the fire was the building owner Gary Burgess who was driving past the property as the Armidale Club was on fire. When the attending Armidale police constable Ginn first asked Burgess who told him about the fire he responded ‘ a friend called him’.

However in his only police interview on July 22, some 10 months after the fire Gary Burgess was asked the same question and told police said his son Ross called him to wish him happy birthday and also said “the Club is on fire, you better get in here quick.”

Police diary entry after speaking with Gary Burgess on Sept 16th, 2016
Extract from police interview with Gary Burgess on July 22, 2017

Coroners Report

Armidale coroner Michael Holmes, reporting in February 2018, found the fire was deliberately lit but did not name a suspect. The police however did settle on a chief suspect, an Armidale security guard who shot himself the next day.

Police discounted Kathryn Richards and her associate Allan St James as suspects, saying the pair were under-insured, and had just received an expanded hotel licence, and had been trading well.

They dismissed the idea that the rival Sky Nightclub had started the fire, saying there was no evidence, everyone had an alibi, the Armidale Club was not a real commercial threat and the nightclub had since closed down in any case.

They also discounted building owner Gary Burgess, saying he had nothing to gain because the building was uninsured.

Questions still to answer

It’s baffling why the police did not ask Gary Burgess in his interview nearly 10 months after the fire on July 22, 2017 if he had been in any discussions with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, the APVMA or any of the companies or real estate agents responding to the initial tender, given that three of the respondents had all based their bids on using his property at 91 Beardy St, Armidale.

This is the closest they came.

Q111 Um, have you ever lodged a development application in relation to that property?

A: No, we haven’t.

That was it, not a single question about the APVMA relocation to Armidale even though Barnaby Joyce the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources had already made the official announcement in November 2016, which had been widely reported on in the local media.

It’s important to also remember that the police interview with Gary Burgess took place amongst a backdrop of widespread claims on social media and statements by Kathryn Richards to the police that she believed the fire could be linked to a development proposal for the site, yet the police never asked Gary Burgess about this at all.

It is clear from the police evidence they very quickly came to the conclusion that Gary Burgess had nothing to gain from the fire simply because the building was uninsured.

Kathryn Richards puts it this way;

“They appear to have accepted his statement at face value, without any further questions because the building was uninsured. That appears to have been enough for the police investigating the fire to completely dismiss Gary Burgess as a suspect.”


Armidale Club submission gets rejected by the Senate Inquiry

In the Armidale Club Ltd submission to the Senate Inquiry dated 23rd November, 2018 Kathryn Richards states the following:

“At no time was the Armidale Club Ltd contacted or consulted with in relation to the asset they own over the site at 91 Beardy St, Armidale. At no stage was it disclosed through the Coronal process that the site was being tended for a development, or one that would be ultimately underpinned by the Commonwealth. On the 23rd of October 2018 during senate estimates, FOI document: LEX 016 was discussed at length. This was my request for information from the Agricultural Department. The government departments chose yet again to deny access to information that could solve the crimes committed against me and end my suffering, denying my rightful access to those documents delays and impedes future court proceedings against those responsible.”

Below is a copy of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources rejection of her submission that she received on the 30th November, 2018.

No freedom of information

Prior to her submission Kathryn Richards also submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (LEX 016) on the 25th of May, 2018 to obtain copies of documents to identify the respondents for the initial tender in September 2016.

An extract from the FOI request on On 25th of May 2018 to Department of Agriculture and Water Resources by the Armidale club owner Kathryn Richards

A recent article in the Guardian Newspaper shows this was not a unique experience with the refusal of FOI requests is at its highest level since records began and a Guardian Australia investigation has found systemic problems.

The devil is in the detail

Interestingly a letter rejecting her FOI request, showed a document that was refused was dated the 30th September, 2016, only two weeks after the arson attack.

The Coalition government refused to give that document to senators, saying it was commercial and that its release was against the public interest.

Liberal senator Richard Colbeck said releasing the information would set a precedent that could stop businesses making commercial arrangements with the federal government and fearing it could risk publication of their commercially sensitive information.

“This outcome would materially impact the Commonwealth’s ability to negotiate and contract with commercial entities,” he said.

The department also refused to tell Senate Committee members who the author of that document was.

Source: Page 28: Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee_2018_10_23_6695.pdf

Armidale Club site chosen for new build

Eventually in March 2018 Queensland-and-Victoria-based developer Stirloch Group won the contract to build a two-storey office at 91 Beardy Street and on the neighbouring property 102 Taylor Street. Both of these properties were owned by Gary Burgess via his family company G R J A AND G J BURGESS AND BAYFOYLE PTY LTD.

Gary Burgess eventually sold the property to Stirloch Group in March 2018 for $1.375m after buying the property at auction in 2012 for $400,000.

Prior to the sale Gary Burgess had entered a deed on 20th November 2017 to sell the property at 91 Beardy St to the Stirloch Group. This deed was dependent on the Stirloch Group winning the $16m APVMA lease contract.

Signatories on the option document are:
Grantors: Greg Burgess and Maryn Burgess signed as Directors of Bayfoyle Pty Ltd. Greg Burgess, exercising Power of Attorney, also signed on behalf of his parents, Gary and Jill Burgess.
Proposed purchaser: Wayne Loechel — Director Stirloch Developments Pty Ltd

The NSW Valuer records show the property at 91 Beardy St, Armdale was worth $440,000 in July 2017.

NSW Valuers Record 22–07–2017

Stirloch Group purchased the property at 91 Beardy St, Armidale from Gary Burgess for $1.375m in March 2018

A done deal?

On 9 March 2018, the APVMA since signed a 15-year lease with Stirloch Group worth nearly $16m for its space in the building and construction has commenced and is due to be completed by April 2019.

Cutting corners

In the middle of our investigation we noticed Barnaby Joyce had started a bizarre media campaign to try and improve his public image after successive scandals in 2018. This bizarre media interview took us by complete surprise as he proudly admits to having to be ‘tenacious’ and prepared to ‘cut corners’ in order to make the APVMA relocation a reality for Armidale.

Is this Barnaby’s legacy?

In the recent Armidale Express article linked above Barnaby said he had borrowed from the trials tribulations of David Henry Drummond and the fight he had trying to get the University of New England started during the 1920’s.

“Just facing the guile and cunning; he really didn’t get approval for it, he just bullshitted his way through, and all I can say is nothing much has changed. You’ve got to be absolutely tenacious,” Mr Joyce said.

However the same ‘win at all costs’ mentality is what plagued the Australian Cricket team which has left us without two of our best players ending in a series of embarrassing losses, and another one while writing this article.

We sincerely hope that Armidale won’t be another embarrassing loss that Australia has to bear, as a result of this ‘must win’ culture that Barnaby Joyce appears to subscribe to.

Where to from here?

The NSW Police have recently reopened the investigation into the fire after receiving new evidence. They expect inquiries will continue early in 2019.

The Senate Estimates Committee will present their final report to the Senate on the 1st of February 2019 with no further hearings scheduled before then.

In December 2018 senior Federal Labor Party members including Bill Shorten spoke in person with Kathryn Richards and have been fully briefed on the details of our investigation. They have assured her they will pursue the matter with vigour in 2019.

Men who gamble

Lastly we came across this article in the Northern Daily Leader who published a story about Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attending the Tamworth Melbourne Cup race day on November 7th, 2017.

“ Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might have looked out of place at Flemington Racecourse wearing an akubra instead of a jacket, but at the Tamworth Jockey Club, he looked right at home. He was warmly greeted by his former deputy prime minister and current Nationals candidate for New England, Barnaby Joyce.”

Both Gary and Greg Burgess were also in attendance as bookmakers for the big Melbourne Cup race day in Tamworth on the 7th November, 2017.

BOOKIES: (Back) Barry Luxford with (front L-R) Greg Burgess, Neville Yates and Gary Burgess at the Melbourne Cup Day races at Tamworth in November 2017
Former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce enjoying a bet and a beer at the Melbourne Cup Day races at Tamworth in November 2017

PHOTO CREDITS: These photos were taken by The Northern Daily Leader’s photographers Gareth Gardner, Peter Hardin and staff.

Disclaimer

The author makes no claims about the innocence or guilt of any other parties mentioned in this article. However we do believe that the evidence we have provided clearly demonstrates there have been some major flaws and inconsistencies with the investigation into the Armidale Club fire to date.


Timeline of events

15th May 2015
Barnaby Joyce tells media up to 195 public servants could relocate from Canberra to Armidale under a plan to transfer the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale.

5th June 2015
New Armidale Club commence normal operations. 
Grand opening weekend.

3rd May 2016
Department of Agriculture and Water Resources engages Ernst & Young to undertake an independent cost, benefit and risk analysis of the relocation of the APVMA to Armidale.

9th June 2016
Barnaby Joyce makes announcement about APVMA relocation to Armidale

30th August 2016
JLL Corporate Solutions are engaged by Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to search for suitable property in Armidale.

31st August 2016
ILGA BOARD MEETING — Armidale Club Hotel License is granted.

15th September 2016
JLL Publish tender on austender. Tender closes on Oct 7th 2016.

16th September 2016
Armidale Club is destroyed by fire

17th September 2016
Former Armidale Club employee Heath McAnally is found dead in civic park Armidale. Death was determined as a suicide by a self inflicted gunshot.

23rd September 2016
JLL Corporate Solutions publish tender in the Armidale Express.

25th November 2016
Barnaby Joyce formally announces APVMA to move to Armidale.

25th November 2016
The Ernst & Young report on the ‘cost benefit and risk analysis of the potential relocation of the APVMA’ is finally released by the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources.

21st December 2016
JLL Corporate Solutions brief the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources on responses to the initial tender.

22nd June 2017
Gary Burgess is interviewed by Armidale police.

20th November 2017
Gary Burgess enters a deed to sell the property at 91 Beardy St to the Stirloch Group. This deed was dependent on the Stirloch Group winning the $16m APVMA lease contract.

1st February 2018 
Coroners Report released. Armidale coroner Michael Holmes, found the fire was deliberately lit but did not name a suspect.

9th March 2018
Gary Burgess sells the adjoining properties at 91 Beardy St and 102 Taylor St to Stirloch Group for $1.375m.

12th March 2018
Government announces the new APVMA location as the former Armidale Club site at 91 Beardy St, Armidale. The $16m lease contract was won by the Stirloch Group who will build the new APVMA facility in Armidale.

25th of May, 2018
Kathryn Richards lodges a FOI request to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (LEX 016).

16th October 2018
The Senate moved that the matter of the APVMA relocation be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for inquiry to report back to the Senate by 1 February 2019.

23rd October 2018
The Senate inquiry beings hearing evidence and submissions.

13th November 2018
Kathryn Richards lodges submission to the Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport.

30th November 2018
Department of Agriculture and Water Resources rejection of Kathryn Richards submission to Senate Inquiry.

11th December 2018
NSW Police reopen the investigation into the fire after receiving new evidence. They expect inquiries will continue early in 2019.

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